Following the recent ANZ strip club scandal, AHRI’s chairman Peter Wilson weighs in.
Two ANZ Bank traders and two human resources executives were widely reported recently to have engaged in inappropriate behaviour, including at an event at a strip club.
Having investigated the incident, the bank issued a high-sounding statement about breaching the bank culture and publicly sacked the traders. The traders are suing the bank for tens of millions of dollars, claiming there was a widespread culture of sex, drugs and alcohol that was condoned among senior staff.
As a former head of HR at ANZ, I wondered: “What about HR?” There were four ANZ employees at the strip club, yet only two were singled out and fired.
AHRI and Insync have recently released a research report that surveyed 365 CEOs and public service agency heads, asking them what they thought of HR in their organisations.
One view was that while HR technical expertise was important, how HR behaves carries greater weight than what HR knows.
Business leaders were asked to rate 10 nominated HR behaviours on how important they were to the business and how well HR performed in each one. These were collaboration, courage, being credible, engaging in critical and enquiring thinking, future oriented, being influential, being professional, resolving issues, driving solutions, and understanding and caring for the business and its people.
Executives of all stripes might be expected to display those qualities to some degree, but there is an expectation that HR business partners in particular should exhibit these in their daily practice. And the 486 HR practitioners surveyed by Insync agreed with that.
So what sort of signal was ANZ sending to its workforce when it fired its traders and left its HR executives untouched for having, on the face of it, committed the same offence? Objective observers might rightly ask whether HR is a protected species.
You don’t have to be familiar with Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities to believe that bank traders are not expected to set standards of behaviour. The $360 million cowboy scandal of the NAB ‘rogue’ traders in 2004 might be fading in the minds of many in the corporate world, but it’s worth keeping Wolfe’s “masters of the universe” front of mind. They believed they were entitled to operate outside of accepted mores. Their vastly inflated bonuses tended to reinforce that sense of entitlement.
Employees, bank traders included, require leadership from the top to disabuse them of the idea that they enjoy workplace rights and privileges that could best be described as delusional. But the leadership is best exercised before employees have offended the prevailing culture, not after.
The Insync survey left little doubt that the role of the HR business partner is to be the repository of the organisation’s culture, to be attuned to what is happening on the ground with the professional practice and behaviour of people in the organisation. Also that HR has a responsibility to alert the organisation or individuals within it to breaches of culture that could detrimentally affect reputation, productivity and bottom line.
ANZ did not offer a reason for its inaction on the HR executives involved, so we are left guessing. One answer is that they were female and the traders were male, but the ANZ is a gender equity employer so that answer doesn’t stack up well. Another is that the traders were highly paid achievers and it’s best to just go along with whatever they want.
Another explanation might be that HR practitioners are not regarded seriously enough within the organisation as people who are expected to show leadership. If that is the case, the bank’s inaction was an opportunity lost.
AHRI is now requiring HR practitioners who want to be recognised and certified as business partners to show – through a rigorous program of study and verification of their practice – that they not only understand the worth of HR expertise to the business, but that they are also pre-emptive in taking an active leadership position in upholding organisational culture.
HR practitioners who understand this know the best way to do that is to lead by example. If they fail to live up to those expectations, it is beholden on the organisation to hold them to account.
This article originally appeared in the AFR on 27 January 2016 and in the April edition of HRM magazine.